The eagerly awaited second Sydney concert in Angela Hewitt’s current Musica Viva tour began with the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor, one of Bach’s most popular individual keyboard works. Both the improvisatory first section and the fugal section proper make extensive use of notes not found in the D minor scale, hence the description “chromatic”, meaning “coloured”. Not that this feature is unique to this piece; Bach uses chromatic inflections for expressive purposes more often than not, but it is particularly obvious here. The resultant work sounds almost Lisztian at times. Hewitt gave the piece a bold and dramatic reading, making free use of echo effects. What I particularly loved was the strong sense of architectural design she managed to convey in the sprawling first part: certain sections were deliberately subdued, and others brought out through carefully planned dynamics. This same sense of narrative shaping informed the fugue, which started limpidly and culminated with the final climactic bass entry of the subject in octaves. Needless to say, the voicing and projection of the important lines was admirable throughout.

Angela Hewitt © Peter Searle
Angela Hewitt
© Peter Searle

Beethoven’s Sonata in A flat Op. 110, the second-last of his famous 32, is one of his happiest works. It begins with an artless, song-like melody supported by an accompanimental pattern that Adorno described as “primitive” in its simplicity, and the warm lyrical tone continues throughout the first movement. At Hewitt’s hands, the opening was particularly ethereal, whereas I prefer something a bit more full-bodied and human. There were some special moments (in the coda, for instance), but overall it felt a bit routine. In the main theme of the second movement, a mysterious first phrase in F minor is followed by an extrovert second in C major, but these contrasts were less fantastical than they might have been. The third movement is an unprecedented formal experiment which begins off with recitative, develops into a slow, sombre aria, which then gives way to a fugue, before the aria-fugue pairing is repeated in a varied format before an exuberant final section (the “return to life”). The pianist made some interesting rubato gestures in the arioso sections, and effortlessly brought voices out of the texture in the fugues. On the whole, I found this less convincing than her rendition of Op. 101 in the previous concert.

Bach’s Art of Fugue takes a prominent place in the canon of unfinished works, alongside the likes of Mozart’s Requiem and Puccini’s Turandot. It is suspected that the incomplete Contrapunctus XIV would have been a quadruple fugue, but as his son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach explained, “At the point in this fugue where the name B-A-C-H is added to the countersubject, the composer died”. While we are thus tantalizingly robbed of the grand peroration in which the four fugal themes would probably have been combined, the idea that Bach in effect turned himself into a fugue and then passed away seems utterly appropriate.

As in the previous concert, Hewitt took the time to explain the distinctive features of each of the fugues and canons we were to hear, resuming from no. XI. Although even more complex than the first part, this second section was just as successful, thanks to Hewitt varying her delivery in such a way as to aid the listener’s comprehension. For instance, whenever a new point of imitation began in the course of a fugue, this was signalled by an appropriate change of mood. The almost unthinkable horizontal complexity was clarified by a careful balancing of the lines, and she coped well with what at times are fearful technical challenges. Perhaps most impressive was the marvellous toccata-like feel she gave to no. XIIIa, while its counterpart, no. XIIIb (based on an inversion of the previous theme) never sounded laboured. Even when the texture was simplified in the two-part canons (nos. XV–XVIII), she managed to create great colouristic variety: no. XVI felt like a driven two-part invention, while the triplets of no. XVII were slurred in a graceful fashion. The whimsical shifts between duple and triple divisions in no. XVIII were realised with aplomb.

The final Contrapunctus, no. XIV, was abandoned where Bach left it (although plenty of others have attempted their own conclusions). Instead, the silence she asked for was observed, and she concluded with the chorale prelude “Vor dienen Thron tret ich hiermit” (Before your throne I now appear), dictated by Johann Sebastian on his deathbed to his son C.P.E. and included in the first edition. This is thematically independent from the remainder of the Art but the inner voices supporting the hymn tune are full of contrapuntal artifice. Resolving onto the final chord after the decorative dissonances did indeed feel like salvation.